Following is a translation of the discourse delivered in St. Peter’s basilica before the ecumenical council by Jean Guitton.
Most Holy Father:
I can give Your Holiness this late title of Father in all its force and fullness because, as a simple layman, I am indeed your son.
Venerable brothers, united to the common Father: I would like to give here the testimony of a layman, which is not the divinely guaranteed testimony of the successors of the Apostles, but a personal testimony, founded on the inner conviction and the experience of an entire lifetime.
Forty-three years ago, I heard the ecumenical appeal through a French Religious, Father (Fernand) Portal, a friend of the future Cardinal Tisserant. At the time of the Malines conversations, I was the disciple of (Desire) Cardinal Mercier and of Lord Halifax, and then the friend of l’Abbe Couturier. It is the spirit, the testament of these forerunners that I would like to illustrate here, expressing my conception of the ecumenical vocation as a truth, a way, a life.
This vocation is founded on meditation on the reasons which, in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus gives for His Sacrifice; on the certitude that this will of Christ is effective and that we must cooperate in it with our whole being.
But like all sublime tasks, ecumenism is a difficult matter of balance, beset by two contrasting errors. One of these errors, and certainly the more serious, is the minimum ecumenism which restricts itself to retaining solely that which is common to all Christians, or which prepares a new super-church said to be the synthesis of the historical churches.
But truth is an absolute which cannot be diminished, as witnessed by so many martyrs. And our divisions, so crucifying, result, in the end, from the fact that truly religious souls prefer the solitude of disunion rather than an equivocal union. All of us are firmly determined to follow the will of Christ, all of us say to Him: “Make of us, make of me what You will.”
The other error — the ecumenism of the maximum — consists in “immobilism.” It consists of believing that the Catholic Church must restrict herself to waiting for the return and the submission of the churches which have broken the link of unity.
But unity is a link of love and love compels us to unity. Further, we should refrain from identifying our own mentalities, our own language with Revelation. Woe to me if, before our brothers who wish for a new understanding, I were to confuse, for lack of knowledge, dogma with this or that formulation of dogma, method with this or that aspect, life with this or that mode of life, thus narrowing that path of that unity for which Christ died.
Ecumenism demands two complementary sacrifices; to the heroic effort which Catholics demand from their formerly separated brethren, they themselves must respond with a humble, magnanimous, sorrowful effort of purification, so as to remove from the face of the Church the lines which mar her eternal youth. The blood which achieves unity cannot be shed on one side only and this is why we must always remember these two complementary truths, which are the soul of Catholic ecumenism:
The first is that the Catholic Church is entrusted with the task of announcing to the world that she is the only Church, as willed by her Divine Founder, a Church without seams, in which everything must be visibly recapitulated. Were we to remain silent regarding this exigency, we would be deceiving our brothers and we would have ceased to be what we are.
But to be a Catholic also means to proclaim that realization of unity will be perfect only when the legitimate forms of Christian and human diversity have once more found their place and their just freedom in the bosom of the Church. To be a Catholic, therefore, means two cares, in a way perpendicular, and which converge in our heart: the first of these cares is the unity of the one flock under the one Shepherd; the second, that of diversity, which decrees that each sheep shall be different from the other in this one flock and that all the legitimate varieties shall be gathered in the Church, so that the Church may have a fuller life.
Let us imagine, venerable brothers, that all our separated brothers wanted to enter tomorrow the Catholic basilica. She would widen her nave, she would open up her cupola, she would make her useless ornaments, her antiquities, disappear, so that everyone should feel at ease in her sublime simplicity.
She would preserve the same form, the same essence, the same structure; nothing that is essential in dogma, in worship and in authority would be modified. But this same unalterable form, enriched by so many contributions and by so many sorrows, would then have its flowering, its perfect plenitude, I might even say, its anticipated glory. What a testimony this would be in the face of the world!
These considerations show to us the way we must follow to make ourselves worthy of such a grace. It is the way of an unremitting and loyal dialogue; one looks for what draws us closer together rather than for what divides.
One returns to the common sources, Biblical, evangelical, patristic, to see whether, starting from the same foundations, one could not reduce our differences.
Finally, with an effort of the imagination, one seeks to find out whether it would be possible to express the living identity of the Church by loving innovations, by a development of theology, by new institutions which would make the Church even more one and united.
After such a dialogue, there would necessarily remain an insoluble part, a seemingly unsurmountable obstacle. But, were non-Catholic ecumenism identical with Catholic ecumenism, there would no longer be a problem but an embrace. We are more than ever attentive to these impressive non-Roman assemblies, in which we see the hand of the Father who convenes them, of the Church who sustains them, and where we hear the indescribable lamentations of the spirit of unity. The divergence which still persists urges both sides to render more intense the invisible exercise of the supreme virtues in their hearts.
Because, and this is the last point I shall make, the ecumenical vocation performs the deepest and purest acts of the spiritual life. Faced with impediments and delays and with the feeling of impossibility, we find ourselves similar to our father Abraham, who advanced in the night of the Faith “in hope against hope,” sustained only by the Word.
And it is in the nature of hope not to heed the hour, and to throw itself in the secret of the Father, whose ways are not our ways. Face to face with God, our ecumenical prayer expires in the act of surrender, which is the climax of love. Face to face with our separated brothers, our ecumenical prayer expires in silence, which would convey to them inexpressible sentiments and desires and an infinite respect.
In the brief course of a human life, I have been able to witness the unforeseeable progress of the ecumenical idea, which received its consecration at this council. As laymen in close contact with the world, we realize that this ideal corresponds to the hopes of present-day men. Each historic era experienced a great vision, encompassing every hope.
Thanks to the council, the young generations will draw from the work in preparation for unity a renewal of knowledge and energy which can renovate the face of the earth. That which is at stake concerns every man in the world, since most of the problems which beset us, such as war and poverty, would be fully solved if the Christians were united.
This unity of Christians is contained in the prayer of the eternal Christ and where is the religious man who does not desire it from the depths of his heart? It will be achieved through ways which are unknown to us and which prepare, while we remain unaware of them, the great events in history. So many converging prayers rise toward God! So many lives have been offered, on one side and the other, for unity!
May the Virgin Mary, who advanced the eternally fixed hour at the wedding feast of Cana, advance the so desirable hour of the reunion of all the Christians in one single body! And may the great cry of the origins, Maranatha, the Lord is corning, re-echo here. Veni, Veni, Domine Jesu!
May graces be rendered to you for listening to a layman speaking of his experience! He has done it fearlessly, like a son before his father, in whom he places all his hope.